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Henri Lefebvre and the time-spaces of rebellion

by Ari Jerrems on December 3, 2019
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Recent rebellions from Chile to Lebanon have reignited discussion about assembly politics. In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and the Arab Spring, numerous movements appeared including the Aganaktismenoi in Greece, the 15M in Spain and Occupy. In my article, “An Opening Toward the Possible: Assembly Politics and Henri Lefebvre’s Theory of the Event” published in Global Society, I develop a framework to understand the advent of assembly politics.

In popular accounts, assembly movements are often framed as a reaction to the conditions of the present (i.e. as a reaction to neoliberalism) or as inaugurating a new form of politics breaking with the established order. These accounts identify important aspects of the movements whilst often overlooking particularities, tensions and complexities. Literature on time and temporality in International Politics provides tools to develop more sophisticated accounts. Scholars have critiqued closed temporal framings of events, highlighting how they are incorporated into temporal narratives that give them sense and elicit particular types of action.

Whilst scholars have developed a strong critique of closed temporal framings, they are often hesitant to develop alternative narratives. Some scholars prefer to take the event as a rupture in temporal narratives that can be lived and experienced in a multiplicity of different ways. Such accounts are not particularly useful for engaging critically with assembly politics. It is precisely the heterogeneity of participants and experiences that is often framed as what is ‘new’ about these movements. For example, this heterogeneity has been taken as symptomatic of the conditions of ‘liquid modernity’ or the necessary form of political action in the context of Empire.

To develop an alternative account cognisant of the particularities, tensions and complexities of assembly politics, in the article, I build on recent work on ‘timing’, ‘rhythm’ and the relationship between space and time. I engage with Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the event to expand on this work. Lefebvre’s theory was developed in his studies of May 1968 and the Paris Commune. It is elaborated in most detail in the untranslated La Proclamation de la Commune: 26 mars 1871 (1965). These studies have received little attention in engagements with Lefebvre’s work in International Politics that tend  to focus on ‘micropolitics’ and the everyday.

Lefebvre’s theory of the event is particularly well-suited to understanding contemporary movements as it was elaborated to study similar forms of horizontal politics. Lefebvre seeks to understand the event as a complex ‘totality’ situated in space and time. He engages with both what he terms the negativity of the event, the complex economic, political and social factors that make it possible, and the positivity of the event, the creative practices that bring new forms of political engagement and rhythms of daily life into being.

In L’Irruption de Nanterre au Sommet (1968) Lefebvre employs the concept mondialité (worldiness or worldwide situation) to grasp the totality of the event. The concept draws attention to both the complex worldwide processes of spatial restructuring shaping the conditions of possibility of the event and interconnected attempts to reimagine everyday life on a global scale. In particular, Lefebvre highlights connections between the rebellion in France and global battles for decolonisation.

Following Lefebvre, the rebellions intervene on the conditions of the present inaugurating novel forms of engagement through the constitution of spatial frames and rhythms. These give the event a particular ‘style’. In the article, I draw on Doreen Massey’s notion of ‘time-spaces’ developed in For Space (2005) to conceptualise the emerging spatial frames and rhythms of assembly politics. The time-spaces of the event emerge from a particular series of circumstances before reverberating beyond their original context, reappearing in unexpected forms elsewhere.

In the context of recent movements, traces of the time-spaces of earlier events have reappeared in subsequent rebellions. Nevertheless, these are always mediated by a particular series of circumstances and conditions. In recent protests in Chile, for example, mobilisations have been shaped by extreme police brutality and the shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship. Ana Tijoux’s videoclip for the song #Cacerolazo reflects the emerging style in this context.

Importantly, the purpose of Lefebvre’s theory is not simply to provide a more complex, nuanced understanding of emerging forms of horizontal politics. Rather, it seeks to critically reflect on how horizontal politics becomes possible and provide tools to build on the spaces opened up.  In the article, I employ Lefebvre’s theory to critically reflect on some of the limitations of the time-spaces constituted by the 15M movement in Spain. I illustrate how placing the emerging time-spaces against the complex totality from which they emerge sheds light on some of the tensions and exclusions already identified by feminist scholars such as Marisa Ruiz Trejo and Nancy Wence Partida. Such critical interrogation does not mean to deny the possibilities opened by the movements but rather provide tools to expand on them in the future.

Ari Jerrems
Dr Ari Jerrems is an early career researcher who teaches International Relations at Monash University. His research is at the intersection of International Relations, Human Geography and Political Theory, focusing on changing notions of political space and citizenship.

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